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What's Working: SDG 9–Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Photo courtesy of Build Change

By Cheryl Dorsey
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Innovation often emerges out of necessity. Fostering innovation, a key part of Goal 9 of the new Sustainable Development Goals, can only happen if we foster innovators — the people who will see solutions, who will see value and promise where others see trouble and decay, and put ideas into action with the commitment for sustainability. While it’s important to create and name the goals we need for sustainable development, measures of success are harder to come by when we’re looking at creative leaders launching new and often untested ideas.

At Echoing Green, we’ve supported nearly 700 social entrepreneurs working in more than 60 countries with seed-funding and a community of support. What’s clear from this portfolio of emerging innovators is that they need time and “runway” to implement their ideas and see results. As we work as a global community toward achieving Goal 9, we need to recognize that part of supporting these leaders means building an infrastructure and an ecosystem that can support their innovations and that looks at metrics in a realistic way.

What does that mean for countries looking to achieve the SDGs and Goal 9? It means they have to consider three elements to foster innovation:

 Create Space and Structures

Innovation is a process that accelerates change by discovering new, effective ways of working. When issues are urgent, it’s critical to create space and structures for innovative thinking and doing among actors, organizations and governments.

 Use Innovation as a Supplement, not a Substitute, for Systems-Level Change

Innovation means challenging the status quo and reconsidering a standard approach. But it’s not a cure-all; just because a solution works in one application does not guarantee success in a different context.

 Fund Innovation in a Way That Makes Sense

Conversations are underway about how we can finance these SDGs, and what’s clear is that all global actors, from development agencies to business, have a role to play. More attention and capital are being directed at impact investments to achieve social change. While this is exciting and an important source of capital for many social innovators, measuring the social and environmental impacts of investments can be challenging, particularly at the earliest stage. Development institutions, business, and investors must work together on realistic timelines for impact measurements when it comes to SDG-related investments.

So what does it look like when innovation is fostered?

It looks like Elizabeth Hausler Strand, a 2004 Echoing Green Fellow, who started Build Change to greatly reduce deaths, injuries and economic losses caused by housing and school collapses due to earthquakes and typhoons in emerging nations. Following the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, Elizabeth saw reports that most of the 26,000 deaths were caused by collapse of unreinforced masonry and mud brick homes. But she also saw a solution — that she could design disaster-resistant houses and schools and train builders, homeowners, engineers, and government officials to build them.

Hausler Strand launched Build Change’s first project in Indonesia after the Indian Ocean tsunami leveled the northern part of the country. Ten years later, the organization is still working in Indonesia and has expanded to work in 10 countries, including the Philippines, Nepal, Haiti and more. The key to her innovation is not only the building technology for resilient infrastructure, but empowering and equipping locals with construction methods and skills they can use long after Build Change leaves the village. This has resulted in 46,000 safer buildings and 10,500 jobs created.

Innovation can also look like Benjamin Cohen, a 2013 Echoing Green Fellow, who founded TOHL. His organization is providing permanent and mobile infrastructure that connects remote communities to clean water by using low-maintenance, solar-powered pipeline systems and rapid-installation techniques. One of TOHL’s solutions utilizes coiled tubing deployed via helicopter to rapidly connect remote water sources to places affected by emergency situations.

The idea was born following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and from the direct need for water in Port-au-Prince after conventional infrastructure was destroyed. Benjamin launched his pilot program in Chile, and has since initiated projects in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Kenya.

The common thread between Elizabeth and Benjamin is that they had a great idea, and the support to put it into action. Innovation can be found anywhere, but it must be fostered. While it’s exciting that innovation is named within the SDGs as a priority under Goal 9, it’s clear that innovation needs to be infused across the SDGs.  To develop sustainable and resilient infrastructure in developing countries, we have to create the conditions where innovators can effectively implement, iterate, and have the time and space to learn from their methods to make lasting change.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, “What’s Working: Sustainable Development Goals,” in conjunction with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development — including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post’s commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What’s Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.


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